Saturday, July 14, 2018

Exploring the Vinyl Omniverse: Part One

Welcome back dear readers / listeners. Before I proceed further, allow me to qualify – the records I am using for this segment (and its eventual sequel) were cobbled together over a period of several years. I am a busy human. I have a day job, family and all the pressures of modern life bearing down unrelentingly. The vinyl and writing thing are part of my entertainment. I don't watch TV and I haven't been to the movies in a whole lot of years! THIS IS MY DOWN TIME ACTIVITY. There are also a few months out of the year I have slightly more time to devote to my hobbies so what follows is a product of several years of research and reflection.........

Like a lot of folks, I like music. Certainly what appeals to me mainly is stuff of bygone days, but I've been checking out some new music the last bunch of years and I can dig some modern stuff too. I've even been to see some new artists in concert lately – I got to see White Denim, for instance. Great show! I will report more on that another time. Especially since the opening act was fantastic! That band was called UNI - from New York City. I enjoyed them so much I bought the three 7” discs they were selling at the show (unsure if they have other releases). Check them out!

My tastes in music really do run the gamut so I figured borrowing a term from Sun Ra might help illustrate what could be called THE OMNIVERSE of interests. Some of this is motivated just from fascination with records themselves. Albums that look offbeat, fringe and truly bizarre always catch my eye even if I've never heard the music before. I'm always on the lookout for cheap thrills especially – stuff that looks interesting that is cheap enough to take a chance on. I've had some real good luck at thrift stores and also in the dollar and five dollar bins at local used record shops. It dawned on me that I haven't really passed along some home runs and whiffs from this category I've managed to experience over the years. Keep in mind I have some very varied tastes – I can find enjoyment in nearly any genre – especially in those gray zones: groups or singers trying to cross over into some uncharted territory or maybe into a style they don't quite have a knack for. Good and bad can be very relative terms when it comes to music. Sometimes I'll take a chance and get burned. There are plenty of turkeys, but the golden nuggets are out there too. All set then?

Lets start with central Europe. A few years ago I stumbled upon a clutch of import LPs in a thrift store that looked kinda prog-esque to me. It also seemed like there was a larger collection they came from which must have been plundered by luckier folks than me. Still, I found this:
 Novalis – Visionen:
 This record is all-instrumental and was released in the early 80s, by which time Novalis had moved on from the label they called home in the 70s – BRAIN. I reckon most German rock band historians would agree that Novalis were past their heyday when VISIONEN came out, but I love this record!! It's become one of my most-played dollar-acquired LPs ever. I've managed to score a few earlier Novalis records on the BRAIN label, but VISIONEN is still my favorite. Not that I'm put off by German language's another dollar record I really like from Germany in the early 80s....
Bap - Fur Usszeschnigge! 
  Bap is a great band name, first of all. The album has fantastic sound quality and reflects good pop/rock songwriting standards of the era. I don't know what the songs are about, but I like the music for sure. With so many overplayed 80s hits – the sound of quality early 80s rock that I don't know by heart is a breath of fresh air. It helps that I don't get hung up on having to understand lyrics. At the end of the day, it's the composition / performance / production that gets my attention. I have no idea how big of an act BAP was, but I'd have gone to see them back in the day!

Moving a bit further East.......the band OMEGA from Hungary
  The sleeve credits mention the album being recorded in West Germany in 1974. It was released on Passport Records in the USA in 1975 and mastered by the great Bob Ludwig! It is an excellent hard rock / prog type album with all the great production values of the mid-70s. Wonderful sound quality and plenty of mellotron included! What's more – the vocalists sang in English! Very enjoyable – though I didn't pay $1 yet still a “blind” purchase for me. Highly recommended.

Yet, even rock music from other countries is still rock music. I do like other vibrations – perhaps more conventional to the times in which the records were released, yet rarely heard these days. Let's move across the English Channel............

First up – the great Vera Lynn! Who could resist a pristine copy of Hits of the Blitz for $1? Not me!
Like most people I only knew Vera Lynn for her evergreen WWII hit “We'll Meet Again” - yet she is a wonderful singer and her talent is abundantly evident on this excellent LP. This LP really is a wonder to hear these days – and just think Vera Lynn is still alive in England to this very day. Think of that – she outlived Bowie!

Perhaps history will remember Val Doonican as a popular Irish singer (he certainly was Irish), yet he had a long-running TV show on BBC. And, of course, he was immortalized by the Bonzo Dog Band in their classic “Intro and the Outtro” - where I first heard the name.....and Val Doonican as himself! Hello there!!

So what was I going to do when I saw The Many Shades of Val Doonican for $1? 
 This is very middle of the road folksie pop music yet it is refreshing today to hear such simple heartfelt music. And this LP includes Val's version of “Elusive Butterfly” which reminds me – I sent Bob Lind a facebook friend request that he has yet to respond to – the wonk! As if he has better things to do! Harrumph. At any rate, I'm likely to keep the Val Doonican record since hearing his brogue reminds me of the many happy times I spent at the Keegans' house down the street from where I lived in Queens – where Suzy was my earliest friend. Her parents sported thick accents that were quite musical to hear – wonderful people to me as a young lad growing up in New York City. Managed to re-connect with Sue before she married in the fateful year of 2001. Where's she gone now? Lost track. Ah, well.......

Speaking of the Bonzo Dog Band.........I was lucky to score a vinyl copy of their reunion LP from 2007 Pour l'Amour Des Chiens
I remember well the excitement of reading how the Bonzos were reuniting for some shows in England during that time. I so wanted to hop a plane and score a ticket to witness firsthand, yet it was not to be. I got the DVD and LP instead. I wish I'd have ordered the Pink Half of the Drainpipe T-shirt being offered on the website..........blast! Ah, with my luck I'd have worn it to a bare thread by now anyway. Why don't I see these being sold on ebay? Please don't tell me the unsold stock was destroyed. Oh, the horror! Anyway, some folks didn't like the new album. Tough noogies – I did. So there you go.

Other notable British bands I've checked out without hearing the music first have been:

DRUID (I like this better than YES “Relayer”)

FAMILY – Bandstand (really knocked me out) 

GREENSLADE (gets better with each spin) 
 In each case I saw the LP in the bins and just bought it without sampling on youtube first. I know this seems like reckless behavior or just plain stupid. However, there is a certain thrill of being confronted with a record or group you've not heard before and exploring right from the vinyl get-go. Literally, some classic albums do not translate onto digital well AT ALL. And I'm not one of those holier-than-thou, analog-only types. I love my CDs and I do like hearing things on youtube if I haven't seen the records before. But at least two albums did not really spark with me until I broke down and ordered original LP copies: Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom and Judy Henske & Jerry Yester's Farewell Aldebaran both puzzled me until I heard the vinyl records. Maybe I just heard bad digital copies – who knows? So I like to at least give music a first chance on vinyl if I can.

But it isn't just about rock music. Speaking of Judy Henske – she's one of my favorite folkie / rocker border creature singers. While she would ultimately define her own style based on her own unique personality, she began in the folk idiom in the early 60s. One of her first appearances on vinyl was as a member of the Whiskeyhill Singers. There was only one LP on Capitol and I have both mono and stereo copies (stereo platters were much less common in those days – surprised I scored one in nice condition):
 The record sticks quite close to the typical cheerful folk group formula all the rage in the early 60s. Though not as cloying as this record I pulled out of the dollar bin for laughs –  
The Serendipity Singers were not too many paces removed from Up With People! Oh well......nice early stereo sound on this record though, if that's your bag........... 
 My bag for folk is more likely to include Judy Henske and Fred Neil than The Cheerful Chirpees that's for sure. I know I've written about my fascination with the “folk” category before. It seems to me that the “folk” tag means you can start out with an acoustic guitar and eventually wind up doing all manner of crazy stuff. In some ways, Townes Van Zandt was folk. Marc Bolan was folk. Donovan was folk. And they all surely got up to pretty strange stuff along the pathways of their varied careers. Certainly by the late 60s and early 70s, the notion of the folksinger would give way to the singer-songwriter. The influence of Dylan and the Beatles would be evident since the singer-songwriters would mostly perform original material instead of public domain material or evergreen folkie chestnuts. In some ways, the folk boom of the early 60s was a way for white singers to remind white audiences that there were songs from varied cultures they might enjoy. Yet, the versions the white audiences heard were the white singer interpretations mainly. By the late 60s, many listeners were able to experience the original music from the original artists – no matter the ethnic origins. So the shift could then move to – the interior of the heart and mind of each songwriter instead of a musical geography lesson. Exploration of inner space instead of outward space (as opposed to outer space – something very different). Here's an example of a record that sits uncomfortably around several possible genres which makes it fascinating for weirdos like me. And I bought it because the album cover tipped me off that this could be interesting. Certainly is!!

Andy Zwerling – Spiders in the Night
 These days I imagine the music might be described as psych-folk. Not a bad description, yet I reckon at the time of release (1971) Zwerling was considered just another singer-songwriter. The instrumentation is sparse and focused on acoustic guitar / electric bass instrumentation. Really - not far off the folk path. Yet, the music has something in common with the third, self-titled Velvet Underground album stylistically speaking. Zwerling's album was produced and birthed by two folks who would later contribute to the punk music movement within a few short years: Richard Robinson and Lenny Kaye. Zwerling is not exactly punk though the lyrics can be unsettling – more in the Velvets style than the Ramones, certainly (though Zwerling does have a bit of a Joey Ramone vibe going visually). It is a fascinating record and well worth checking out if you've been feeling far too secure and comfortable and social. It will cure you fairly quickly of all that stuff! Ha!

Now, not all folk music involves acoustic guitars. Some is made entirely with shakers, oil can drums and the human voice. Behold – George Coleman “Bongo Joe” 
 This has to be heard to be believed, hence the clip here:
 Yes, the whole record sounds like this. Frig it – I call it “folk music”. You can call it blues. I don't care. George Coleman was pure, undiluted, straight-up - I mean we're talkin' FOLKS here! I searched for a long time for this album. It was more a matter of figuring out where it came from! Since there aren't many oil can bangers out there it was only a matter of time – courtesy of internet searching. Thanks to my good friend Pete who tortured my mind for a few decades by including a snippet of this on a tape he made for me a long time ago. It was nearly as bad a mystery as the Inez Andrews mystery I had to solve, but that story will wait for another time..............

When I spotted this next LP in a $1 bin I was aware of Jim Glover's long association with Phil Ochs. It could be argued that had there been no Jim Glover, the Phil Ochs that we all know may not have emerged as he did. Jim Glover was a friend from early times and reportedly showed Ochs how to play guitar and introduced him to left-wing politics. Jim would record several LPs in the 1960s with his wife as a folk duo – Jim and Jean. There were a few albums released on Vanguard Records that I haven't bumped into yet. Jim's solo album  No Need To Explain looks to be a private pressing, yet his professional chops are intact. 
 The songs are uncompromising in their allegiance to 60s-era values and perhaps not suited to either the radio or the ethos of the times. Glover is his own man here. If the popularity of his outlook was on the wane when this record came out, his true believer status would surely lead him to the right people to support him. While never reaching stardom, his artistry is worth checking out. At the end of the day I really like Glover's voice, his songs and his guitar playing. What else can we ask for? This record is kind of like the extra album everyone hoped Fred Neil would put out, but never did. Jim Glover kept it going and that's appreciated – even if it is a long time away from when this record was released to now.

Glover's influence on Phil Ochs' political interests are echoed in the next record I pulled out of a $1 bin. Little did I know that Violetta Parra was a respected folksinger from Chile in the early part of the 20th century when I rescued her album. 
 She was also a major influence on the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara who was brutally murdered in 1973 as a result of the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende government. Victor Jara was a friend of Ochs and later in the 1980s, Paul Kantner immortalized Jara on the first track from the KBC Band album. It is interesting to note that Jara's murderers have finally been brought to justice THIS VERY MONTH!! About friggin time. See here:

At any rate, Jara's mentor in folk music is a fascinating character in her own right, though she led a troubled life and had a similar end to Ochs, alas. I have to say as I listened to her record I didn't quite understand the lyrics, but the urgency and artistry of her music came across loud and clear – I need to track down some English translations of her lyrics. Violetta Parra is a seminal figure in the folk music of Chile and, indeed, world music. Her contributions to music continue to reverberate. Check her out!

Now, here are two examples of feminist-inspired creativity, but in my view one done RIGHT and one done, well, let's say “I don't think so”. Let's start with the good news..........
 Mountain Moving Day is a split-artist record. Side One features The New Haven Women's Liberation Band and Side Two features The Chicago Women's Liberation Band. This is a fairly early release from Rounder Records in 1972. Rounder would issue many quality titles from a wide variety of premier artists and continues to do so – NRBQ, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Lowell Fulson – and many more. Rounder continues to be one of the longest-surviving independent music labels around. This early women-centric release may appear to be too topical to take seriously, however there is a LOT of great creativity happening in the playing. Both groups contribute extended song forms with direct and forthright lyrics, yet the music itself has a fantastic looseness and freedom to it – though not in the free-jazz sense. It is especially noticeable in how the ensemble performances unfold. I'll bet both groups were awesome to hear live. This is a record which takes the Women's Movement seriously and elevates the cause. Released at a time when male groups dominated the charts and the industry, these brave musicians would lead the charge that has resulted in more involvement of women at all levels of the music industry today. Bold creative music is always great to hear.

On the other hand, the women's liberation movement must have seemed like a new trend to play up to – maybe not unlike the folk music boom of the early 60s. Musical trends can be fleeting things – why not try to attach oneself to a current wave of interest? This notion wasn't lost on Charles Mingus. He once purposely identified his music as “folk” in the early 60s. If it sells the product – who cares what you call it? In Mingus's case he already knew the value of his art. The marketplace is fickle, the longer trajectory of music history is time-tested. When music becomes too attached to a movement or a trend there is the very real possibility it can lose its impact years later. Such, I think, is the case with The Deadly Nightshade
Clearly this women-oriented trio had talent and the passion to bring their music before the public. And it must have been enough of a priority for Felix Cavaliere to put his energy into the record as the producer to pull on board a host of top notch musicians of the mid-70s and rock and roll legends to help in the proceedings. Steve Gadd, the Brecker Brothers and even Leslie West all play on this album. The credits read like a who's who of mid-70s modern music. As I'm starting to find out with projects like this – that should have been a red flag. As the songs roll by, I'm having a tough time trying to figure out who the intended audience was. There are so many cliches of the women's movement packed into each song lyric – yet the delivery is so jokey and lighthearted it makes me wonder who the joke is really on. Not that there is anything wrong with humor, it just sounds so misplaced here I am almost to the point of wondering “Are these women making fun of the women's movement itself?” Maybe I'm wrong, but despite all the effort by all the famous names involved the end product just sounds too silly to take seriously. What's even more concerning is the name / image used for the record label. I will resist the urge to include a photo (since I don't want people to draw the wrong conclusion about ME) – but why on earth would a major parent label (RCA in this case) sign off on a subsidiary label with an image of a white hooded figure with two holes cut out for eyes as a RECORD LABEL LOGO in the 1970s fer crissakes?? And for a supposed women's liberation record to boot? Sorry, but if I was a woman in this band and I was told the label my music was coming out on had that kind of image on the record I'd be insulted to say the least. Now I'm not suggesting there actually was a connection between this group and a violent hate group, but wow. Bad luck, maybe? I don't know anything more about the band, the musicians involved, where they wound up later on......yet the album raises more questions for's a puzzle for sure!
(Alright – I couldn't stand it anymore – I went poking around and sure enough Robert Christgau pretty much cut to the chase in a few sentences with his curt review: ). Wow. I was going to write something along the lines of The Deadly Nightshade makes Helen Reddy sound like Lou Reed, but hey I think Christgau threw the gauntlet down there didn't he? Oh well.........

As for thrift store $1 finds in the 70s female folksinger category I'd have to give a nod to 
The Magic Garden duo Paula and Carole  
for not only entertaining me as a wee lad, but also for having great voices and, rightfully, cheerful personalities. I think I liked this record more than my grandson did. Your mileage may vary.............
 Now I wish I found this Colonel Sanders record in a thrift store! I think this is one of the more well-known record covers made famous by the internet, so I was persuaded to grab this even though I had no idea what the music was on it. Not to worry! The music is actually very faithful to the original recordings of Herb Alpert hits by some other group. Actually it makes me wonder how Colonel Sanders got away with it. The tracks here sound VERY close in style and execution to the Herb Alpert versions. Well, I know which record cover I'd rather be looking at if I'm listening to this kind of music. No contest! 
 Actually, Herb Alpert had a much better sound – especially with guys like Hal Blaine on drums and all the other Wrecking Crew characters too. I really love the Herb Alpert records – and not just for the covers. I have to say – the Whipped Cream cover really is an iconic album cover. Anyone who doesn't have this in their collection – I can't fathom why not. There are still absurd amounts of these things sitting in thrift shops. And the music really is great – as far as easy listening goes. Highly recommended. Now if you're a record cover fanatic, you're likely to snag one of these too. 
Unfortunately, Pat Cooper's brand of comedy hasn't aged well. It's really saying something when I have to admit I enjoyed the side of the record with the goofy songs on it more than the comedy routine side. Actually, the first song on side two is called Pepperoni Kid and has an unusually similar storyline in the lyrics to Jim Croce's “Bad Leroy Brown”. Was Croce influenced by Pat Cooper? I'll leave that to you. At the end of the day, the album cover is still the best thing about the whole deal and that isn't saying much either.......oh well!! 
 Almost as thrilling as the Pat Cooper record is Grandpa Jones Yodeling Hits. Now I don't mind some good old fashioned down home yodeling every so often, but I can't decide if this record promised too much or too little. Everybody who watched TV in the 70s knew him from the Hee Haw show (though I imagine he was on the lower end of the reasons why folks tuned into that program!). I reckon his stature in the country music world was more respected than what was seen on 70s variety shows, but this record didn't do much to convince me he had more to offer than a pedestrian voice with the polite yodel thrown in – probably far too often for repeated listening. If anything, this album sounded a lot like a 60s Roger Miller album recorded on a day when Roger just wasn't feeling very funny, witty or inspired. Is there some unknown maverick side of Grandpa Jones' career that I'm not aware of? I wouldn't be sad to find out, but it sure isn't on this platter..........too bad!

Now, I'm not pulling the cynics card on the next two records since I happen to like a lot of faith-based music. Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Inez Andrews and the Staple Singers are just essential listening in my book. Even Elvis's gospel records are awesome. Love it. When I was in junior high school, I was exposed to a genre I never knew existed – modern Christian rock music. Sure, I'd heard songs like Spirit In The Sky on the radio. And Jesus is Just Alright. Good tunes. But I never knew there was a whole circuit of professional Christian rock musicians. At one point I was invited to see the group Petra up in Albany. They put on a great show, even if the music wasn't terribly memorable. What I liked less was the roundup at the end of the show where they – who were “they”? - pulled the “unsaved” people to designated areas so they could be “saved”. I was a person of faith at that time and I took offense to be identified as someone who wasn't and said as much. There's nothing quite like being herded up by a bunch of people who have decided you are not enough like them in some bizarre ritual to magically MAKE you like them (to satisfy some unseen fetish you can only guess at). Well, I suppose there certainly is WORSE than that, but it sure taught me something about people in general and those folks in particular. I'd sooner take the Groucho Pledge – not sure I want to be in a club that would extend membership to a fool like ME (that kind of thing). 
 All of that aside, I was astounded to see an entire industry designed to offer safe alternative sonic options – supposedly in a style of music normally associated with concepts like rebellion and freedom and just being crazy in general?? I'm still confused and fascinated by the whole thing, so when I spotted a couple of early 80s Christian Rock albums in the $1 bins – had to investigate. Amazingly, the Rick Cua album was a totally rockin', professional sounding and catchy-as-hell (oh God, sorry!). I really liked the song about the Holy Spirit and the song Crossfire too. On some tracks the drummer listed was Joe English – hey! He was in Wings for Paul McCartney's return to the concert stage in America in 1976 (good concert film – catch it if you can). I'd heard Joe English found religion a long time ago. He certainly was a talented drummer. This record was super enjoyable from a musical standpoint. Like I mentioned – anything well recorded and performed from earlier decades of music can be interesting regardless of the popularity, etc.... So this is a fascinating artifact. If the record really sucked I would have pulled it off the turntable. But I kept it on. Alright! 
 Now, much to my own surprise I had the same reaction to the Pat Terry record. The cover and the title really made me chuckle. Gangster? Terry was looking pretty mild and safe on that cover. I was ready to make fun of this record, but once again I was won over by the overall musical quality of what was on those grooves I just kept the platter spinning. If anything, Pat Terry's songs were just as faith-oriented yet his delivery was a lot less preachy than Rick Cua. Despite this – both records reflected more commercial talent than The Deadly Nightshade album! These two guys sure could construct excellent modern music – stuff that was radio-ready in those times. Yet, the only radio that might play them would be the faith-based radio. It's a whole industry and circuit unto itself.

Annnnndd.....for the thrilling conclusion of this overly-long entry is the POLAR OPPOSITE of the above two albums. I discovered a whole pile of the following record at a thrift store many years ago and was saving it for just the right moment. I only bought two – one for myself and another for a good friend of mine who I had a feeling might get a kick out of it. Yet – I'd never heard it before because it has to be one of the most DIY things I've ever seen in my life.......
 John Konopa - Praise the Lard!
 The record itself was professionally pressed – that is obvious. However, the cover....oh wow. This was an obvious labor of love and lack of funds. Plain white sleeve with cutout hole to reveal song titles – alright, fine. The other lettering.....hang on. These things were printed on an old DOT MATRIX printer. Okay, well the copyright date states 1987. Yep, that's about right. My family had a pretty kickin' dot matrix printer. Used to do all sorts of fancy banners and stuff. Yeah – different fonts just like this. Wow. What is really impressive is the BACKWARDS printed section - “X-rated” backwards?? That's pretty sophisticated in a low-budget kind of way. I really should have bought all of the records that were dumped there. Dangit! I had a hunch this was going to be good. And sure enough - John Konopa delivered in the songwriting department. The music itself sounds like early karaoke / Computer music in the 1987 style. But its those lyrics. Konopa was a very harsh critic of religious belief. Hilariously so! He also has a Holy Spirit song (like Rick Cua above), but Konopa uses fun analogies like “Sacred Sparkler” - I'm DYING!!! There are a lot of unexpected lyrical twists throughout the album. In a way he was a like a one-man irreverent They Might Be Giants. Heavy on the irreverent!

But the religious side of the record is nothing compared to the, um....other side. I really don't want to post the titles because I'm still trying to keep this blog as family-friendly as I can. Suffice to say, if the material on the second side has any grounding in autobiography I learned way more about Konopa than I ever needed to know. Unfortunately I also found an obituary for John online. He left the planet in 2010 and there were some very pleasant reminisces from his neighbors posted on the obit page. There was reference to his being an accordion player and composing music on synthesizers – though no mention was made of the record above. Should I be surprised? Honestly – as unsavory as the material is John certainly had a sense of humor, didn't give a hoot about speaking honestly of his criticisms of religion and didn't mind making himself the subject of his own jokes. I can't say his music was for everyone, but this is the kind of stuff that keeps me digging in those unusual places.

I'm still on the lookout for fringe thrills from the dollar bins. And there's MORE to the story here because this is only Part One and I've bombarded you enough for one entry. So until next time – keep seeking and keep listening!!